For the global pharmaceuticals industry, the fight against counterfeit drugs is one of the greatest challenges of modern times.
According to the World Health Organisation, some fake medicines are so cleverly manufactured that thay fool even health professionals. And the results, of course, can be fatal for patients.
© Fotolia, 2012
While human lives and health are the most
important concern, counterfeiting is a problem
that plagues other industries too. High on this
list are perfume manufacturers, with large
sums of money at stake in sales of high-class,
luxury branded items.
Meanwhile, the proceeds of counterfeiting
go to feed organised crime, possibly even
terrorism, and result in huge costs in the form
of lost tax revenues.
The problem is simple: many medicines, and
almost all perfumes, come in glass containers
which are hard to protect against the
counterfeiters. Ink-based markings are easily
erased. The tags needed for Radio Frequency Identification
(RFID) can be removed or altered. Laser marking might be the answer,
but existing techniques produce microscopic
cracks in the glass.
It was to find a solution to this problem that
the EU-funded SFERA project was set up,
using funding from a programme designed to
stimulate innovation by fostering cooperation
between small and medium sized businesses
The result of the two-year, € 1.5 million
project was a unique new laser engraving
technique known as 'Naginels®'. The high
resolution system allows tamper-proof bar
codes to be engraved on the inside of bottles
at the time of packaging. In combination with
specialised reading machines, 'Naginels®'
makes it possible to detect even the most
Critical to the success of the project was the
need to produce a system which was not just
a reliable safeguard against counterfeiting,
but also one which was practical to deploy.
One of the key achievements of SFERA,
involving 9 SMEs from Belgium, France, Italy
and the UK, was to produce a system capable
of applying the engravings at a rate to match
the pharmaceutical industry's demanding
production speeds – a dizzying 600 items a
Combined with a high-speed reader, the new
technology has already been recognised
within the industry as the perfect answer to
the scourge of pharmaceutical counterfeiting.
While its speed is crucial to industries like
pharmaceuticals, another of the features of
the different requirements of the perfume
industry. In a sector where aesthetics are
crucial, the laser engraving is almost invisible.
More than that, it can even be used to produce
attractive light diffraction effects taht actually
enhance the product – a real "win-win" situation.
Back with the pharmaceuticals industry, the
new system guards against another major
risk: the danger of bottles getting mixed up
during production. On high-speed production
lines, the right bottles need to be filled with the right medicines.
Obliviously, mistakes can be catastrophic. The SFERA system means that bottles can be instantly identified and rerouted where necessary.
With the recognition it has already gained,
it is hoped that the technology developed
through SFERA will rapidly become a global
standard within the pharmaceutical industry
?- safeguarding human health and finally
putting an end to a crime which, in the
pharmaceutical industry alone, is estimated
by the World Health Organisation to cost the
world more than € 12 billion a year.